Agreement clears way for Duke Energy hydro license

South Carolina environmental groups have reached an agreement with Duke Energy that will pave the way for renewal of Duke’s federal hydroelectric license for the Catawba River.

The 50-year license expired in 2008. Renewal will extend Duke’s control of the Catawba for up to another half-century and unleash millions of dollars in promised recreational upgrades and conservation spending.

The agreement announced Thursday commits Duke to improving conditions for two endangered species of sturgeon, which the environmental groups have argued could be hurt by Duke’s 11 dams on the 225-mile Catawba.

“I think we’re all delighted, all the parties, that we’ve got this whole relicensing moving again,” said Gerrit Jobsis, an official in Columbia with American Rivers, one of three conservation groups involved in the settlement.

Sturgeon, a species that is hundreds of millions of years old, swim up coastal rivers to spawn and have ranged into the Wateree River below Duke’s Wateree dam in South Carolina’s Kershaw County.

Duke agreed to release water from the dam, during two annual 10-day spawning periods, to create even flows of water that won’t wash away eggs. Dams normally release water in surges, then shut them off.

Duke also will adjust releases to periodically inundate the Wateree River floodplain, important habitat for herring and other fish species, and let the water recede in a way that mimics nature.

While Duke had previously committed to similar measures in negotiating its license terms, Jobsis said, the new settlement doesn’t leave them to Duke’s discretion to carry out.

Parties to the settlement also included the Southern Environmental Law Center, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Duke agreed to stop legal challenges of DHEC’s ability to issue a state water-quality permit that is needed before a federal license can be issued. South Carolina initially issued the permit but revoked it in 2009 as the Carolinas fought over water rights to the Catawba. They’ve been in court since.

Under the agreement, Duke will reapply for the state permit by Aug. 22, said spokeswoman Catherine Butler. Once that is granted, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would be in position to issue the hydro license.

“This agreement will have positive, long-term benefits for water quality, wildlife and important habitats like the downstream Congaree National Park” near Columbia, said Natalie Olson of the Coastal Conservation League.

Duke has previously agreed to license terms that include transferring 1,255 acres for public recreation and conservation, giving up to $12.3 million to state agencies for more land and spending an additional $5 million to improve wildlife habitat.